Community Design for New Modes of Legal Service: The Escambia Project

Margaret Hagan
Legal Design and Innovation
18 min readFeb 21, 2017


I am part of an ambitious new project in Florida to fundamentally rethink how to get legal help to people — and to do so through an inclusive, interdisciplinary, participatory design approach.

The Escambia Project, right before the final presentations at our 3-day participatory design sprint

In Escambia County, Florida, in Pensacola, the Florida Bar Foundation and a community center, Pathways for Change, are collaborating to launch a ground-up plan for getting legal support to people who need it. I am taking part as a design facilitator, to guide the direction of the work and to coordinate what we do together.

We’re working over the next 8 months to identify promising new ways to serve people in the Pensacola community with legal help, in ways that they want it. Our process is to involve people from the community in all parts of the design and development of these new services. And it is to build these services quickly, test them meaningfully, and then edit, scrap, or scale the initiatives based on what happens during their pilots.

Escambia County, in the Westernmost part of Florida’s Panhandle, just right next to Alabama, has the chance to be a great example of how to do community-driven, coordinated legal/social services.

Where is Escambia County? At the far West of Florida

We’re approaching it in the model of the participatory service design work going on in Malmo, Sweden and Milan, Italy. These service innovation labs have brought all kinds of community stakeholders directly into the creation of new, more accessible government services, with a spirit of inclusivity and creativity.

Could Pensacola be the Sweden, or the Milan of the US, when it comes to forward-thinking, people-centered, holistic government systems? That’s what the Escambia Project is aiming towards.

What is the Escambia Project?

First, the name “the Escambia Project” is a placeholder name, until we know exactly what it is we are creating. For now, it is a collective of people, mostly based around Pensacola, who are intent on creating a better network of services and government systems for people who need them.

In the group there are legal aid attorneys, community activists, social service providers, funders, graduates of social service programs, volunteers from community groups, corporate social responsibility representatives, law professors, teachers, and more. Melissa Moss of the Florida Bar Foundation and Connie Bookman of Pathways for Change have brought together this wonderfully diverse group, and organized them into working groups to make things happen.

Design work at Pathways for Change’s Family Center, in Pensacola, all around getting better legal help to people who need it

In particular, this group of people is focused on one big question to begin with: how do we get legal help to those who need it, and who may not even know they need it?

Rather than starting from the usual lawyer-first or court-first point of view, we are starting with the people. It’s not about setting up more traditional law offices or clinics, and hoping that people realize they have a legal need and then find their way to a lawyer.

How instead, can we create services that are people-first: giving them the services they want, in the settings and times they want, and in ways that clearly provide them with the value they want and that solve the problems they have?

What would legal help look like if redesigned from the ground-up? If it were woven throughout the community for people to find and use on their own terms. What if it was created for people to find and use in the easiest, most supportive ways? And what if we didn’t even frame it as ‘legal’ — but just as one more part of a wider set of services?

This proposition of people-driven legal services has been rumbling around as a concept in classes, conferences, and discussions about improving the legal system. With the Escambia Project, we are using human-centered design and agile development to get from talk to action.

The original project plan we staked out, to guide the basic flow of user research, prototype development, and pilot testing over 10 months

The Project begins with an existing community hub: Pathways for Change, which has a Family Center building located in Pensacola, right in between four public housing blocks, and which already provides a range of social services. It has a holistic, wraparound mission, providing community members with education, counseling, training, links to social services and government agencies, and beyond. Right now it has a little bit of legal assistance as part of its menu of services for its community — in the form of a volunteer lawyer that drops in for occasional consultations.

The starting challenge for the Escambia Project group was how to make legal help more integrated, more meaningful, and more substantial — to serve the community better.

Pathways for Change has made itself open to us, to help prototype, pilot, and test concepts that we create. They have an existing volunteer staff and community base that can root our projects and engage with them. Our mission is to find the right new concepts to build for Pathways’ community, and beyond. We will develop new legal service modes with them, with the idea of scaling them up to serve wider communities based on what we learn from an early pilot.

What We’ve Been Doing

We started The Escambia Project off at the end of 2016, forming teams and laying the groundwork for this year’s design and development sessions. I have been leading the Design Team, in planning out a 3-day design sprint and researching inspiration, models, and methods to use during it.

I’ve been soliciting other examples of community-driven, integrated legal services and collecting these working programs and concept designs on the Access to Justice Innovations page.

Examples and analogies to guide our design work, collected together at Access to Justice innovations

Our teams began to meet on the phone and email, to greet each other, learn about where we’re all coming from, and set out how best to use our in-person time well. I planned out a three day schedule, for our design team to come together in person and get through at least one design cycle, of identifying core needs, sketching out a small menu of possible initiatives, soliciting feedback from a range of stakeholders, and then refining our proposed pilot into a more scoped, certain vision.

We would have other teams — like those doing community lawyering work, outreach and engagement, and the steering group, come at the beginning and the end for input and feedback. A smaller cohort of us would spearhead the design work.

For 3 days in early February, we all met at Pathways for Change’s Family Center in Pensacola. Connie hosted us in their conference room, and got us all the sticky butcher paper, post-its, and sharpies we needed. She coordinated many different community stakeholders to participate as team-members, interviewees, testers, and droppers-in.

One of the groups at the 3 day sprint, deep into day 2

We had three core working groups, each working on a different set of problems and ideas under the broad challenge of ‘better, community-driven legal help’. Various community members were with each team, and others came in to participate for as long as they could, but without the requirement that they stay with us for the (long) full working cycle. We had a drop-in, open-door policy: stay with us for as long as you can, to make the designs better — and leave when you need to.

Our 3 days were structured around the flow of the design process.

Our 3 day Flow

Day 1 was starting with our broad challenge, and then moving towards a focus on a specific user scenario that we could address. Day 2 was our creative day, in which we’d brainstorm, look at other models, narrow down to a handful of ideas, test them, and sketch out the most promising ones. And Day 3 was refinement, presentation and consensus. Each team would pitch their most promising concept to a wider audience of community members, experts, funders, and community members, and then we’d have a review and selection process. We’d end the day with a game-plan of what we came to consensus on for a Summer 2017 pilot.

A Bagel-Tootsie-Lifesaver cake made by one design team for another

And there was lots of food, coffee, sweet tea, pastries, and Southern food to fuel it all.

Kicking off our design work, focusing in on problems

We started off the 3 day sprint with a goals-check. The steering committee set out what they wanted to get out of our time together.

Then we formed into teams, and started off on our discovery work. What did various community members have to say about what kinds of legal help they needed, if they have seen trends or commonalities in their community, and what stands in their way from currently seeking out help.

One of the big barriers in this conversation is that we, as lawyers, tend to think it’s obvious what ‘legal help’ is, and why people need it. But often, we realize, they don’t see their housing, or children, or employment issues as ‘legal’ ones.

We started to make context maps, personas, and user requirements list from these conversations.

Mapping out what works right now, what doesn’t; What could work in the future, what to beware of

Our three teams focused on three different use cases, about the scenarios for help, the user’s preferences, and the types of issues needed to be addressed.

Persona 1: Barbara, a 40 year old woman, who wants to keep her son out of jail and take care of her grand kids
Persona 2: Joe, a single 28 year old man, who is in the Men’s Residential Treatment Program (a Pathways for Change-sponsored program, that is an alternative track to prison) and wants to get his life back in order
Persona 3: Wilma, a 37 year old single mom who is just coming out of prison and needs help getting her kids back and life in order

We ended Day 1 with a share out of each group’s focal point: what people they wanted to serve, what scenario and use case (meaning, what point in this person’s life) they’d be focused in on, and what some guiding insights for designing something should be.

A user requirements list for any new solution
Formulating all the kinds of needs a particular user might have — not all of them legal

During this focus-in phase, many of the groups were not explicitly focused on solving a “legal” problem for their chosen stakeholders. They were thinking more broadly, and more in tune with the mental model of their chosen person rather than of the lawyer. How can I get my life on track? How can I get my kids back? How can I keep my son safe? How can I get my driver’s license? These are the way our users were framing their needs — nothing about lawyers, clinics, rights, courts, or legal aid.

We pushed our teams to make this bridge — keep the framing around the people’s needs, but then bringing the insight of lawyers to think about what services and help the legal system could bring to them. Because our Project mission was about integrating the power of the legal system to help solve people’s problems and protect them, we encouraged the teams to follow the needs and value of their user, and then find opportunity areas around where legal empowerment might serve them.

Review at the end of day 1: what needs, people, and scenarios the 3 teams are focusing in on

Going Wide with Ideas, Sketching them Out

To start Day 2, I led the teams through three kinds of brainstorms. Each person did an individual 10 idea storm, in which they sketched out 10 ideas per person about what they might do to serve their target audiences. Then they came together into their teams, and had to come up with 20 more concepts — with particular emphasis on being more ambitious, challenging, and orthoganal.

Finally, we did a call-and-response brainstorm, in which I presented a possible model from other areas of legal and social services, and the team had to adapt this model to their own use case. They didn’t have to adopt it wholecloth as an idea, but rather should make the leap to think “how could we adapt this idea of ____ to our person’s situation”? I used this method to expose the groups to some of the new trends in legal tech and service design, and to jumpstart some more surprising ideas about how to connect people with help.

The teams then sorted their brainstorms out into a Difficulty vs. Importance matrix, to make sense of which ideas clusters to prioritize.

A brainstorm to help a young man Joe take advantage of the legal system to get his life on track
A brainstorm for young grandmother Barbara, to help her keep her family together and safe
A brainstorm for Wilma, just coming out of prison and wanting to get her kids back and life re-set up

From these huge maps of ideas, then the teams chose three to sketch out into concept posters. By lunch on Day 2, each of the teams sketched out three of their top brainstormed ideas into a high-level vision: name, sketch, functions, high-level value, target users, and implementation details. The goal was to get a fleshed out vision, that we could then test with a cohort of community members who would visit for lunch.

There were 3 concepts for our user Joe, the 28 year old who was in jail or just coming out, and wanted to get his life on track. These ideas were Justice on the Block, Learning the Law, and Justice Allies.

For Wilma, our mother who was coming out of prison and wanted to get her kids back and life in order, we had another three ideas: Choose Your Own Adventure Intake, One Stop-Life Shop, and Know Your Rights: You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know.

And for our final user, Barbara, a young grandmother who wanted to protect her family and stop her son from going to prison, we had another set of ideas: a platform of My Journey to Success, including an Avatar/We-Me/BitMoji.

Early Testing of our Ideabooks

To test these ideas, Connie arranged to have members of Pathways’ Men’s Residential Treatment program visit the sprint as reviewers. The MRT program is for men who have been convicted of non-violent, non-sexual crimes, who then enter into a multi-stage program of rehabilitation and training provided by Pathways. They live together, go through programs together, and work to get their life reoriented in preparation for release.

Ten of these men visited us for an hour of feedback and testing of our Idea Concept Posters. They each visited with each team and did a ‘gallery walk’ of the posters, while asking questions, giving thoughts, and explaining what would be most useful to them.

From these rounds of feedback, the teams regrouped and focused in once again. They asked the community members explicitly which ideas should be given priority, and how to shape and detail these concepts to be most useful.

The teams then spent the rest of Day 2 refining the highest priority ideas into a more thought-through project, that they prototyped one level deeper. I introduced some models for this: creating storyboard walkthroughs of their proposed initiative, acting out the services, or mocking up interfaces for tech tools or paper tools.

Over the course of the day, each team went from two-word post-it level of ideas, to concept posters, to sketched out or enacted prototypes. They got their designs ready for sharing out on Day 3 with an even wider set of stakeholders — and making their pitch about why their concept should be piloted in Pensacola during Summer 2017.

Concept 1: One Stop: Life Shop

Team Wilma focused in on coordinating services in one physical place, at one designated time, to make it very easy for a person to get all kinds of social service and government tasks done conveniently. They termed this One Stop: Life Shop. They prototyped a storyboard, a visual intake app, and an enactment of how a person would arrive, be set up, and flow through multiple service experiences in a short visit.

Acting out the One Stop Life Shop flow of actions

Concept 2: Justice on the Block

Team Joe had a different concept: make legal services come to the community-member, on their terms, in familiar locations, and upon request. They called this idea Justice on the Block.

The concept involved engaging multiple stakeholder groups: people like Joe who have legal issues and want to find help to resolve them, lawyers with untapped volunteer potential, and community centers that would host outreach and consults.

Concept 3: Smart-Story Intake

The final concept, from Team Barbara, was all focused on the interaction between a community member with legal needs (who might not know they have legal options) and a person (maybe not even a lawyer) who can help screen for issues, and get the person started on their legal journey. It would also let the person store their relevant, important docs in a safe place, and manage their data.

Our final consensus

After each of the teams presented their concept, our large group of stakeholders and reviewers talked it through. Was it feasible to do? How would they get people to know about it, and excited about it? How exactly would it work? These questions all pushed the teams to be more specific about feasibility, viability, and the devil of details.

After all the presentations were made (and people enjoyed some lunch), we closed out Day 3 with a debrief conversation. Each of the ideas was strong enough for the group to vote for it to be piloted. Then the question was how to simplify each of the ideas down to a manageable scale, and integrate them with each other to make a coherent system.

I mapped out the conversation, into two categories: what to do this summer, what to save for ‘bigger vision’ scale further down the road.

Our consensus conversation, about what to actually do this year

The conversation suggested we combine the three proposals so that each would be a service touchpoint in a larger system. Justice on the Block would allow for more outreach to community centers and people, to have them tuned into legal help opportunities.

Community centers could host free legal help sessions, reach out to their audiences, and integrate pro bono and legal aid lawyers more effectively. A person could come with a query for help, and they could be matched with a free lawyer, to speak with in person, over Skype, at office hours, or upon request.

One-Stop Life-Shop would be one branch out of this network of community-based help. We could run one or two rounds of this Life Shop, bringing together all kinds of service-and resource-providers to Pathways’ Family Center. It would be an initial test run of getting these providers coordinated and physically co-located. If it went well, then it could become more institutionalized, or even permanent as a regular warehouse space full of all help-providers together.

Finally, the Smart Intake and Personal Legal Itineraries would be a tech-tool that would help with both of these other tracks. It would help an advocate or volunteer (not necessarily a lawyer) better spot when people have a legal issue. Then it would help craft a personalized gameplan for how this person should be accessing legal services.

The more general intake screener at Pathways could adopt this tech-powered version, or it could be run at other community spaces, One-Stop Life-Shop, or anywhere else people might need it. It would be a screener and referral tool, to get more people to the right tracks, resources, and advocates.

What We Will Do Next

Now we are in planning mode, to make sense of all the insights, requirements, and ideas that came out of our sprint. We have marching orders from our stakeholders, about what a possible Summer pilot might be.

In the next few weeks, we are figuring out if we are at the right level of ambition: pushing for a breakthrough, people-oriented system, but in a small enough scale that we can get it off the ground in a few months and test discrete assumptions. We want to create something meaningful and to challenge the status quo, but in just enough of an incremental way that we can actually implement it, fix its bugs, and measure what exactly it’s doing.

Mapping out the three tracks of our system

To do this, we’re debriefing in conversations and sketches. For example, here is a map that starts to capture the different tracks of services we’ll be developing.

We are also deciding on who we should bring into the Escambia Project’s “Build Team”, who will be in charge of implementing these various strands of hte system. It will be a mix of community managers, software developers, communications and marketing specialists, and others. We need new digital tools built, but our real, more challenging task is to get more people aware of the programs and resources we are building, and more lawyers willing to give their time to them.

We are also in a second-round of scouting out inspiring models and experts in the field. Rather than try to reinvent models, logistics, and best practices, we’re looking for people who have already built out similar parts of the system we’re creating in Pensacola. We have some leads in Arizona and Indiana, and we’re looking for more. If you have suggestions of projects or people that could inform the development of these new access to justice projects, please send them along!

In our open, agile approach, we want to talk to lots of people, and especially those who are building and implementing great services. Our project team is driving forward to start defining in detail what we’re going to build, who we’re going to partner with, and how we’re going to measure it. Please let us know if you can help us with thoughts, contacts, or otherwise.

Meanwhile, we will continue on our schedule, and we’ll update more as our prototypes take shape and we prepare for Summer’s pilots.